I like living with CDs. I like to leave them in the player for a week or two and see how they grow. I'm not worried if, at first, I don't hear everything that's going on. Just as long as there's something - a few magnetic bars, a particularly firey exchange, a pregnant moment in the music - that demands another listen. So it is with The Art of Falling.
The phrase that hooked me comes at the hands of pianist Randy Porter, and it occurs in the middle of the 2nd track, titled "Castles." Jeff Johnson's original composition contains a simple melody that fluctuates enticingly between two chords. Within these chords exists a clear tonic center, and during his solo Porter sounds the tonic note repeatedly, each time offering a new and greater sense of resolution. Then the pianist hands off to Johnson, and for a few precious bars they carry the tune together, until Porter lays out and all that's heard are the deep, resonate tones of Johnson's bass singing softly in its element.
Last year Johnson released Free on the Origin record label, a trio recording featuring Billy Mintz and Hans Teuber. While The Art of Falling (recorded live to 2-track) is in much the same musical vein as Free, the addition of Randy Porter to the Johnson-Mintz-Teuber chemistry is significant. Porter's piano comping provides a strong harmonic foundation for this music, which often tends to elevate on the melodic wings of Teuber's sax and Johnson's bass. As a soloist, Porter is soulful and intelligent. He, like the others, give a great performance.
An important aspect of The Art of Falling is that much of the rhythm, melody and harmony is implied, especially the rhythm. A broken time feel is employed throughout, allowing space to play an even more vital role. The absence of notes creates rhythmic tension heightened by the subtle, understated character of the music.
Leading the rhythmic undercurrent is drummer Billy Mintz. His organic array of snare drum pops, cymbal pings, gurgling toms and bass drum footfalls set the tone for the entire recording. Mintz's style is unique and his approach is unorthodox. His drumming is peaceful and yet chaotic. Akin to the sounds of Nature, it's full of tumbles and rustles, blusters and whispers.
Teuber's alto saxophone rides Mintz's rhythmic current, launching and landing legato phrases. At times the horn player becomes an aviary, chirping intervallic clusters. His tone is light and breathy, reminiscent of Paul Desmond.
In fact, the birdcalls of Teuber find a perfect foil in Johnson's bold bass fiddle. Throughout the nine compositions, (five of which are original works) offered on The Art of Falling, Johnson's tone is fat and clear. He plucks his bass strings forcefully yet with finesse. Indeed, his melodic approach sounds more like a horn in the spotlight than a bass in the shadows. And, like his music, Johnson's spirit is benevolent, as anyone who knows him will attest.
To the novice listener, this recording may be problematic. It may sound too sparse, too broken, too free. However, to Johnson and his fellow musicians, The Art of Falling is the art of modern jazz.